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The National Geographic Society has some nerve. Like a grinning overachiever, Nat Geo dazzles us with gorgeous, seemingly effortlessly made photographs from far-flung locales, all but dripping with gravitas and insight. Then what does the society do? It mounts an exhibition of the outtakes from those photographic journeys—-and they’re still jaw-droppingly good. The exhibit is relatively light on the society’s classic nature work and deeper in the sociology of place—-a real-life Mormon splinter community akin to Juniper Creek from the HBO series Big Love; the South African township of Soweto in transition; and the repressive corners of Afghanistan, where simply being a woman can be a Kafkaesque proposition. Yes, yes, all these smart, weighty photo essays come with lovely imagery, but a couple stand out even within this elite group—-images that explain the impossibly dire drinking water situation in Ethiopia, and a portrait of the wild animal trade, legal and illegal, in Indonesia, including a harrowing image of a lizard being skinned. Go see the exhibit—-and be reminded of how much of an underachiever you actually are.

Through June 12 at the National Geographic Society, 1145 17th St NW, Washington, D.C. (800) 647-5463